The Road Not Taken: Cicero and Lesser Creatures

Andrew Sillett

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[1]


The history of the late Roman Republic is among the most keenly debated periods of ancient history. The reason for this is simple: nowhere else is our evidence both so deep and so narrow. Where else in antiquity are we so fortunate as to possess almost 60 speeches on high politics, more than 30 treatises on an imperial elite’s culture, or almost 1,000 personal letters composed by and to the realm’s leading statesmen? But then, in what other age are we so hobbled by having all of the preceding written by the same person?

The study of the late Roman Republic, then, is frequently the study of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Thanks to the survival of his texts, we have insights into aspects of life in this period that we would give our back teeth to possess for others. But is it really possible that a man whose works have come down to us in such extraordinary volume would be in any way representative of his age?

One of the most rewarding ways to deal with this problem is to try to flesh out the lives of Cicero’s contemporaries, the ones whose careers ran parallel to his own for a while, before they ran out of puff and were left wheezing in his wake. By looking closely at these little people, we can gain a better understanding both of the late Roman Republic and of what made Cicero such an exceptional figure within it.

Cicero stirs up Romans from the Rostra (H. Leutemann, c. 1880)

If we look at the Pro Roscio Amerino, Cicero’s first appearance on the public stage, we can find one such walk-on character deserving of close attention. In 80 BC, the 26-year-old Cicero mounted a spirited defence of a young man accused of having murdered his own father during the recent civil war in order to secure his inheritance. Leading the unsuccessful prosecution on behalf of the leading citizens of the victim’s hometown was an orator now almost unknown to history – Gaius Erucius.

The place of Pro Roscio Amerino in Roman history, at least as Cicero tells it, is well-known: Cicero turned the tables on the leading citizens of Ameria, accusing them of orchestrating the murder of Roscius’ father and attempting to cover it up by accusing the son. In so doing, Cicero tells us, he exposed the corruption and violence employed by the civil war’s victors and helped usher in a return to the rule of law. Cicero’s success in this case launched his career – within ten years he had been elected to the Senate, and within twenty he had held Rome’s highest office and been lauded ‘father of the fatherland’ (pater patriae) for uncovering and destroying a conspiracy against the state.

But what happened to Erucius? From what we can reconstruct from the surviving scraps of biographical information, he seems to have entered the Forum to prosecute Roscius in a similar state to his adversary. Neither could boast any significant ancestry, nor even a Roman family: Cicero was born in the hills 75 miles south of Rome; Erucius, most probably the same distance to the north. It seems both came to Rome at a young age to study rhetoric under the great orator Marcus Antonius, and both managed the unlikely feat of surviving the internecine conflict that dominated the decade after their arrival.

The Young Cicero Reading [are we sure?], Vincenzo Foppa (Milanese fresco, c. 1464; now in the Wallace Collection, London)

As Rome slowly returned to normal civic life, the two happened upon a similar means of making a living. Bringing peace to the Italian peninsula had necessitated a vast extension of the franchise, and with it had come an enormous new base of possible clients wishing to exercise their newly-acquired citizen right to settle scores and seek redress through litigation in Rome’s civil and criminal courts. Judging by the cases they took in this period, Erucius and Cicero put their legal and rhetorical knowledge at the disposal of these new Italian citizens, offering to steer them and their grievances through the complexities of Roman law and the theatricality of the courts. By making their skills available to the domi nobiles (the potentates of Italy’s towns), both were able to obtain the manna sought by all aristocrats and wannabe aristocrats: gratia and dignitas – influence and prestige.

So of these two men from similar backgrounds and professions, why did one succeed in reaching high office and the other disappear off our radar? It certainly isn’t the case that, after being defeated in the trial of Roscius, Erucius slunk away with his tail between his legs. Only a few years later the two crossed swords again, with Erucius once more helping an Italian family prosecute one of their own for exploiting the chaos of civil war to murder his relatives in pursuit of an early inheritance. This time he was the one to emerge victorious.

In spite of this, Erucius would have disappeared entirely from the historical record were it not for the survival of this inscription from the Umbrian town of Spoletium (modern Spoleto):



IIII . VIR . I . D

ARAS . XI . S . C . FAC . CVR

C(aius) Erucius C(ai) f(ilius) / T(itus) Titius L(uci) f(ilius) Flac(cus) / IIII uir(i) i(ure) d(icundo) / aras XI s(enatus) c(onsulto) fac(iundum/as) cur(averunt)[2]

Gaius Erucius, son of Gaius, (and) Titus Titius Flaccus, son of Lucius, quattuorviri with jurisdictional power, by decree of the Senate saw to the construction of eleven altars.

Making a mark locally: the Erucius inscription (Museo Civico, Spoleto)

We can reconstruct from this that Erucius left Rome within a decade of his last appearance in our Ciceronian evidence and moved back to his hometown. There, no doubt on the basis of the connections and expertise he had acquired Rome, he was elected as one of Spoletium’s four chief magistrates, allowing him to exercise power on behalf of the local council and set up monuments that would carry his name for posterity.

What should we make of the fact that Erucius’ career diverged so far from Cicero’s? The year 63 BC saw the outbreak of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome and Cicero’s triumph over it; Spoletium suffered an earthquake that destroyed the city walls. While Erucius pored over the city’s accounts trying to work out who would pay to rebuild them, did he reproach himself for being stuck with this mundane task while his erstwhile adversary shook hands with Pompey the Great? Did he smile a few years later when Cicero’s hubris drove him into exile?

My own feeling is that while Erucius may have frowned when he saw his cameo in Cicero’s self-serving accounts of his early career, and while he may have raised a sad glass upon hearing of Cicero’s death, he probably didn’t while away his days on the waterfront lamenting that he coulda been a contender, that that could’ve been him on top of the world if he’d just got the right breaks. It is very easy to slip into the trap of viewing Cicero’s career teleologically – assuming that because he ended up on the consular benches in the Roman Senate, that was all he and his contemporaries ever dreamt of.

Viewing the world of the late Republic through this lens vastly downplays the extent to which the odds were stacked against Cicero reaching his vertiginous station. When he was elected Consul it had been more than 30 years since a man with no Senatorial ancestry had achieved that feat. I doubt that many moments in Roman history could match the adrenaline rush Cicero must have felt when he was elected Consul, but that does not preclude the fact that Erucius would have been rightly swollen with pride at being elected Quattuorvir in his hometown after a long career spent fighting for its citizens in the capital.

The Roman theatre of Spoletium/Spoleto (first built in the mid-1st cent. BC)

Very few people passing through the Museo Civico in Spoleto look at an inscription like the one discussed above and see in it the crowning achievement of a human being’s life – the kind of achievement that a young Marcus Tullius Cicero might, in one of his more realistic moments, have considered fair recompense for a life’s work. In order to appreciate the full extent of Cicero’s achievements, we need to recalibrate what one can realistically expect from a man of his background: Erucius’ seemingly modest achievement was excellent, Cicero’s almost defies comprehension.

To my mind, one of the most rewarding and stimulating ways of approaching the ancient world is to appreciate the fact that the Italy of the late Roman Republic belonged just as much to Erucius as it did to Cicero. Trying to stand in the shoes of these walk-on characters, trying to understand their hopes and desires, trying to view the world through their eyes has the obvious utilitarian benefit of helping us grasp just how exceptional a figure Cicero was. But it is important beyond that: the joy of trying to see the world through the eyes of Erucius, not just naively importing one’s own ideas but really trying to understand how he comprehended the world around him is, at its heart, an exercise in empathy. And that is a muscle that we can always stand to exercise a little more.

Andrew James Sillett is a Departmental Lecturer in Latin Literature and Roman History at the University of Oxford, and a tutor at St Hilda’s College. He publishes on various aspects of Cicero’s political, rhetorical and philosophical life, including a forthcoming monograph on the posthumous reception of Cicero in the early Roman empire. He also runs a Beginners Latin club for primary and secondary school children.

Further Reading:

The story of how men like Cicero and Erucius helped the new citizens of Italy navigate Roman law is ably told by Kathryn Lomas in her chapter ‘A Volscian Mafia?’ in Jonathan Powell and Jeremy Patterson’s Cicero the Advocate (Oxford UP, 2004; accessible with subscription here). For an in-depth look at how Italy’s towns and local magistrates reacted to the extension of the franchise after the Social War, Ed Bispham’s From Asculum to Actium (Oxford UP, 2007) offers a comprehensive overview of this process, and the implications it had for Italy’s ability to function as a political unit. For a magisterial demonstration of how to wring every last drop of historical information out of the turgid sponge of Ciceronian evidence, Andrew Linott’s Cicero as Evidence (Oxford UP, 2008) is hard to beat. Finally, Alison Rosenblitt’s Rome after Sulla (Bloomsbury, 2019) serves as an expert guide to the richly textured world of Roman politics in the 70s BC (beginning with Cicero’s Pro Roscio Amerino).


1 Robert Frost, ‘The Road Less Taken’ (1915); the rest of the poem can be read here.
2 The scholarly reference for this inscription is CIL XI 4800, i.e. it occurs as item 4800 in the eleventh volume of the immense collection Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (started in 1853 and still a work in process!). The data are arranged by geographical region: vol. XI gathers epigraphic (inscribed) evidence from the Italian regions north of Rome: Aemilia (later Emilia), Etruria (later Tuscany) and Umbria. Much of its contents can be explored here.